World on the Weekend: Japan

Japan is a country, which, like many ancient Asian kingdoms, sealed itself off from the rest of the world for long periods of time, ironically following these with periods of violent expansion and conquest.  In modern history, the Second World War concluded a period of horrific regional domination with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, forcing their unconditional surrender.  Having risen from the ashes in its own unique way, Japan is now a huge producer and innovator of cars and technology which have impacted societies around the world in unprecedented ways.   

The culture has unique iconic elements familiar even to outsiders: samurai, ninjas, geishas, karate, sushi.  More recently, Japanese manga, anime, J-pop and video games have flooded the youth culture market.  There is a great deal from both the ancient Japan and the modern that will no doubt fascinate your child.


Art, cuisine

For this day, center the following projects around the idea that you’re preparing to have a Japanese tea ceremony.  Note that it isn’t entirely necessary to get all the details correct: the point is the idea of mindfulness and appreciation of beauty.

Start by painting your faces in the style of traditional Kabuki theatrical masks.  There are many websites you can look to for inspiration such as this Pinterest page:  

Ikebana is the traditional art of flower arrangement.  The idea isn’t to take a crash course, but rather to take real, or even home-made paper flowers and place them harmoniously and artistically in a vase.

Calligraphy: you can make basic calligraphy-looking strokes using a small flat paintbrush.  Teach your child to write their name kanji-style using only straight lines without turning their wrists.  Make placemats for each member of the family.

Origami creatures are a lovely addition to any place setting.  Don’t go out and buy expensive speciality paper, any square piece of paper will do (plain printing paper is good, newspaper and construction paper are respectively too thin and too thick…don’t ask me how I know.)  Find instructions for basic beginner’s figures to try.  This will be a challenge for a young child’s dexterity, so exercise patience.

Prepare green tea and, if you wish, a Japanese treat such as mochi.  The recipe we used can be found here:  However, be careful: eat small bites and chew slowly to avoid choking ( )

Place a picnic blanket on the floor, prepare the place settings and sit down cross-legged to enjoy your ceremony.

Physical education

If your child hasn’t done any martial arts, karate is an interesting place to start.  Find videos teaching a few basic steps of karate.  Also, Geronimo Stilton in The Karate Mouse (note, the author is officially listed as Geronimo Stilton, though I’m sure there may have been humans who helped)makes for a surprisingly informative read.


The Japanese don’t have a history of mathematics in quite the way the Ancient Greeks or the Maya did.  However, one idea I liked was that monks would often leave elaborate math puzzles on temple walls for other monks to try and resolve.  Naturally, these math puzzles were also esthetically beautiful.  This gave me the idea of “stealth” math which I developed into the following game: instead of a boring old math book, you can turn a math lesson into a series of Ninja missions.  Depending on your child’s age and abilities, you can have them run around the house collecting a series of numbers or envelopes with math puzzles.  The challenge, of course, is that ninjas need to move without anyone hearing or seeing them, so this shouldn’t be a noisy game.  Give your child a simplified, hand-drawn map of your house or apartment with Xs to show where the math puzzles are.  Your child is then tasked with planning when and how to get into each room without anyone knowing and solve each puzzle.  After solving it, they have to leave it in its original place for you to sneak around and correct afterwards.  You can leave comments or even stickers in the envelopes.  This game can take all day as you both have to wait until no-one is looking before you sneak off.

The games of Go and Sudoku also practice strategy and math.


As a teenager, I used to quite enjoy Sailor Moon, though Dragon Ball Z might have greater appeal for boys.  No doubt your family will find their own favorite anime series.


Japanese cuisine is rich and varied.  Depending on your cooking skills, you can find recipes ranging between easy and nearly impossible.  Don’t overdo the wasabi.


The tea ceremony was great, because a lot of the fun of an event is the planning.  The idea actually came from an experience we had when my mother came for a visit: my mother had brought Barbie and Ken dolls from Canada and we spent an entire day planning their wedding, including decorating the house, baking a cake and writing invitations to all of the other dolls.  The wedding itself lasted about 15 minutes after all that, but it felt like a day well spent and we had lovely memories.  I thought it might be nice to repeat the experience by spending the better part of the day preparing for the tea ceremony.  My mother had already returned to Canada but Child’s Father joined us for the ceremony. 

We had fun painting our faces, and Child insisted on doing her own, so we sat like a pair of theatre stars side by side in front of a mirror.  I helped her with some of the more intricate flower designs.  We practiced calligraphy, but at the time Child was deeply resentful of any attempt to teach her to read and write, so we didn’t linger on that part.  Origami, too, was a failure.  I, myself, can only make a frog well, and Child got frustrated trying to make her own and just wanted to watch me. So, I made a couple of frogs and we moved on.  Ikebana was fun because we cut out flower petals out of different coloured paper and glued them into some nice flower arrangements.  Most flowers have a Fibonacci number of petals (5,8,13, 21) so we got to review that idea.  Later that afternoon on our walk, we counted flower petals on flowers rowing by the side of the road and found Fibonacci numbers every time.

Then I got to relax while Daddy was karate sensei (teacher).  He taught her to count to ten in Japanese while practicing the moves.  We had already read the Geronimo Stilton book over the previous week, and Child was interested in the karate lesson.  Then again, she likes anything involving sanctioned kicking.

The math game, as described above, did take all day.  But, truth be told, Child is the noisiest ninja ever and it took great acting on my part to pretend not to notice her stomping and crashing about.  She got most of the math right, though, and loved the stickers she got for correct answers.

We both hate Sudoku and I didn’t have time to learn Go. 

For dinner we had a simple teriyaki vegetable stir fry with rice which was quite nice.

Additional note:  Last time we were in an airport, Child loudly (and rather embarrassingly) announced that the lady in line behind us must be Chinese because of her face.  The lady leaned forward and kindly explained that she was Japanese.  Child unhesitatingly placed her hands together, bowed and said “Konichiwa”! 

World on the Weekend: Turkey


Turkey is and always has been a cultural center at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and North Africa.  Its heritage includes historical and modern influences from the Mongolians, Greeks, Ottomans, Central Asians, South Asians, the Islamic nations and the West, among others.

I spent 2000-2001 teaching in Istanbul, living and working on the Asian side of the Bosporus.  Because the language school I worked at offered classes 7 days a week, half of the teachers worked weekends, but got Mondays and Tuesdays off.  We decided to call them “History Tuesdays” and used the days to explore museums, palaces, markets, churches, mosques and other sites of interest around the city.  My favorite part was crossing the Bosporus itself by ferry and making sure to order a freshly grilled fish sandwich from the people on the boats near the shores.  I also enjoyed my frequent visits to the Princes’ Islands, so named because apparently the sultans would imprison brothers and unwanted sons there to prevent having their throne usurped.


Literature and film

One of the most beloved characters in Turkish folklore is the wise fool Nasruddin.  You can find some of the witty tales about him online or on YouTube. 

Indeed, most of the classic Hollywood and Disney-style ideas of the exotic Middle East such as genies, flying carpets, snake charmers and such were originally inspired by Turkish folktales, which in turn are a medley of tales from Arabian, Indian and North African cultures.  Therefore, it would be acceptable if you were to watch Aladdin, though technically the story takes place in an unnamed Arab country as per the 1001 Arabian Nights tale form which it originated.


Belly-dancing is an excellent exercise for toning the tummy, and is reputed to provide benefits for the female reproductive system, particularly the muscles of the uterus involved in childbearing and menstruation. 

Though it could be argued that the outfits and the dance itself are overly sexualised for a child, I thought it was fun to do in our living room, just us with no-one else watching.  It brought back fond memories of Tarkan, who was famous in Turkey at around the same time as Ricky Martin, and for the same sort of snake-hipped dance tunes as well, which just goes to show how much Latin American and Middle Eastern music have in common.  Shakira was the most famous to exploit both her Lebanese and Colombian ancestry, as you can see in this video for “Ojos Asi” (  

To be clear, Turkish music does not, for the most part have these rhythms, and has a different “sound” altogether, as different as American country music might be from rock and roll in the west.   However, on buses and in general in public restaurants and bars, you’re far more likely to hear Arab-style music than traditional Turkish.  

Note: Tarkan’s greatest hit, if you’re interested was called “Simarik” which translates to “Kiss kiss” and you can find it here:

Math and art

Turkish carpets and kilim (small rugs for prayer or decoration) are world famous for their exquisite design and delicate weaving.  Weaving itself is a difficult art form to master for small hands.  You can buy weaving kits, but I just taped several lengths of yarn across the top and sides of a piece of wood and taught my daughter the simplest in-and-out style.

Islamic religion forbids the use of the human face and body in art, so rather than portrait or narrative paintings in the European style, Islamic cultures created lovely mosaics out of geometric shapes and patterns.  Additionally, certain texts such as the Koran are traditionally decorated with what is known as “illumination art” which are decorative geometric shapes around a text.  These two aspects of Turkish art can be used to teach children about shapes, and particularly tessellations, which is the way certain shapes or combinations of shapes can fit together: squares, triangles and hexagons tesselate, for instance (as you can most likely see on tiles surfaces such as bathroom walls or tiled floors) whereas circles do not.

Backgammon is an old Turkish game and not difficult for a child to learn.  It can help with basic addition practice as well as strategic thinking.


Shawarma is always good, though Turkish cuisine extends far beyond that.  Look up recipes, and have fun exploring.  Don’t forget to finish it off with a nice Turkish coffee (for the grownups!)


The Nasruddin stories were pleasantly silly and we enjoyed the tricks he played.  You can find some cartoon versions on YouTube as well as written versions online.  One involved Naruddin selling his house to a rich man with the proviso that he could maintain ownership of a hook on the living room wall.  The next day, he walked into the house and hung his coat on the hook, and over subsequent days, he took ever more advantage of the ridiculous situation until eventually, when he tied his cow on a leash to the hook, the rich man agreed to pay Nasruddin to take the house back.

The film “Aladdin” is, of course, a general favorite in our family; specifically the cartoon version starring the master of comedic monologue, Robin Williams. 

Unsurprisingly, Child adored belly dancing, and even managed to tie her t-shirt up to her waist to expose her midriff.  As I say, at home, that’s fine.  Nowhere else.  And, if you’re curious, yes, I have explained to her in no uncertain terms that bad men hurt little girls if they go out dressed as grownup ladies.  This isn’t victim-blaming, to my mind, it’s fact.

The art projects were surprisingly interesting.  Child doesn’t enjoy art much, but she likes manipulating paper as we did to weave the placemats, and she liked cutting out and gluing on the geometric shapes.  She enjoyed spotting examples of tessellation over the next few days as well.

She liked backgammon and we still play it frequently.

She still doesn’t like Middle Eastern food, and shawarma was no exception.

World on the Weekend: Germany

Child requested to learn about Germany, but she specifically noted that she did not want to learn anything more about the Holocaust “until I’m older”.   So she knew about that.

What she didn’t know was that in the twentieth century, Germany accomplished, to greater or lesser acclaim depending on whom you ask, the incredible challenge of reunifying what had become two incredibly different worlds split symbolically and physically by the Berlin Wall.

History, geography, political science

How does one explain the horrors of Communist East Germany to a child? 

I had already explained the original idea of communism by explaining how Israeli kibbutzim worked where everyone worked according to their ability and received according to their needs.  In fact, that is exactly what a family unit is.

However, communism as it was practiced by the Stasi was terrifying and repressive and the only way to explain that was to describe the extreme measures to which people would go to cross the wall.

First, though, it’s worth explaining the wall.  Dr Seuss wrote a rather charmingly horrifying book called “The Butter Battle Book” in which two adjacent villages go to war over which side to butter their bread.  A wall between them goes up, and each side sends an envoy with an increasingly powerful weapons.  The book ends with all inhabitants hiding underground while the two soldiers stand on opposite sides of the wall ready to drop the final bomb.  Although the book received some criticism for portraying the two sides as morally equivalent, as a story of a pointless game of dangerous brinkmanship, it is excellent. It was made into a lovely animated short film as well.

The real story is even harder to believe.  It began over a dispute as to whether the East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie had the right to demand that an American diplomat by the name of Allan Lightner show his documentation.  International agreement said he didn’t have to, but the low-level guard wasn’t taking any chances.  Pretty soon, both sides had tanks lined up.  The problem was, the tanks on the East German side were completely black with no markings.  Without being able to identify the tanks as either of East German or Soviet origin, the Americans were afraid to move.  As it happens, a US lieutenant and his adjutant drove across in a jeep (still agreed upon as a tentatively legal move) and somehow managed to sneak into one of the black tanks and discovered a Russian language newspaper.  This information was sent through a backchannel between the president’s brother, R.F.K. and a Soviet diplomat (there was no direct line of communication between the two superpowers, hard as that is to believe) and allowed both sides to diffuse tensions. 

This story can lead to interesting discussions with your child on how to resolve disputes on the playground. 

Music and dance

After a morning of heavy political discussion, put on your tutus and dance the afternoon away to Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner.

Stories and math

If your child is unfamiliar with Grimm’s fairy talks, remedy that with perennial favourites such as Cinderella, The Goose Girl, Rumplestiltskin, The Frog Prince and others. 

For the story of Hansel and Gretel, make a cardboard cookie house.  Take a cardboard box and cut it into a doll’s house, or use a doll’s house you have.  Draw and cut out cookie and candy cane shapes to stick on.  Draw patterns on the cookies and candies, or draw 2 and 4 way symmetrical patterns on the cookies.


Black Forest cake is always a nice treat.


We enjoyed reading and watching “The Butter Battle Book” and we learned a lot about the different ways people tried to cross the wall.  We even went outside and tried to find ways to scale our own garden wall, minus, of course, the threat of being shot at.

Dancing is always fun.  We listened to the different pieces of music and tried to decide how it made us feel: happy, sad, angry, excited.  Then we danced out those emotions.

The Hansel and Gretel house took the better part of the afternoon.  It was fun coloring the candy shapes, and of course we added things like sequins and glitter.  Our doll’s house looked simply fabulous!

World on the Weekend: Switzerland

Switzerland is positioned right at the crossroads of four distinct languages and cultural regions: French, German, Italian and Romansh.  Though it is geographically at the heart of Europe, it maintained a neutral stance during the two world wars of the 20th century.  The two main focusses I’ve chosen here are on the natural world, particularly the Alps as described in “Heidi”, and the concept of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention saying, in essence, that everyone has the right to medical attention.


Language arts

“Heidi” by Johanna Spyri, is a classic piece of children’s literature focussed as much on the wild beauty of the Alps as the lives of the characters.  You can also watch the 1937 version of the movie starring Shirley Temple, and compare the two. 


You can make paper clocks and practice telling the time (homeschooled kids, and those with a less rigid schedule may have trouble with this!).  For young children, this is an excellent opportunity to practice skip counting by 5s as well.

An interesting way to realise the difference between AM and PM and how this doesn’t necessarily correspond to the times when we are awake and asleep is the following: Divide the room into two sections, an “AM” and a “PM”. Have the child do stretching movements to show awake times and contracting or shrinking movements to show sleeping. Then say, for example, “3AM”: The child must move to the “AM” side, but perform a shrinking movement. “3PM” would meaning standing on the other side, the “PM” side and doing growing and stretching movements. They can also act out what they do at the given time of day.

Another good math activity is to compare the heights of mountains. You can use cards like these:

  Mount Everest 8848m Nepal / China     K2 8611m Pakistan / China     Annapurna 8091m Nepal
  Cotopaxi 5897m Ecuador         Cayambe 5790m Ecuador   Reventador 3562m Ecuador
  Pichincha 4784m Ecuador         Kilimanjaro 5895m Tanzania   Matterhorn 4478m Switzerland / Italy  
  Mont Blanc 4807m France  Italy/  Switzerland     Mount Fuji 3776m Japan   Olympus 2918m Greece

Deal the cards out evenly between players. Everyone chooses one of their cards and places it face up in the middle simultaneously. The player with the highest mountain wins that round.


It isn’t difficult to make your own muesli.  Get some rolled oats and add dried nuts and fruit, shaved coconut, chocolate chips and even a few pieces of chopped fresh fruit like apples.  Put it in the over for 10 minutes and enjoy. 

Heidi drinks goat’s milk out of a small bowl; the bowl is what makes it fun, but feel free to use any milk you prefer.


Try this strategy game about the Red Cross and Geneva convention:

You will need a checker board, 5 dice, 20 soldiers in 2 colours and 1 soldier in a third color with Red Cross flag.  A toy car with a red cross drawn on it will serve as an ambulance (you’ll have to make the wheee-oo wheee-oo! sound yourself).

To play: Player 1 and player 2 each put their ten soldiers on opposite sides of a checkerboard but only on the white squares.  The aim is to get all your soldiers to the other side first OR to get one soldier there by exact count.  Soldiers can jump.  Roll 5 dice each turn and decide who to move.  If you land on a black square or the same square as opponent you are injured.  You can save the injured only when you roll a 6, at which point the “nurse” comes with the ambulance (wheee-oo wheee-oo!) and the “soldiers” can keep playing form where they were.


“Heidi”: book vs movie.  It is interesting that in the book, Clara, the “invalid” (as they called the disabled in those days) gained the strength she needed to walk from being in the mountains, whereas in the movie, it was only thanks to Heidi’s help.  Also, in the movie, the adults discovered the aptly named Fraulein Rottenmeier was the evil woman who hurt the children, whereas in the book, no adult ever seemed to realize what she was doing.

Telling time is still a challenge, perhaps because, unlike most people, Child’s life is rarely ruled by the clock.  She enjoyed practicing counting by 5s and she knows how to say things like “it’s four twenty”, but it’s difficult to know if she understands that it’s about two hours before dinner. 

The mountain game seems simple enough, but it involves comparing large numbers so the child must remember how to read starting from the largest number on the left.

Muesli-making was a short, but creative experience.  I put out a baking tray and a number of small bowls of things to mix in.  She suggested oats, raisins, shaved chocolate, shaved coconut, chopped apples, dried cranberries and a few other things. We filled each bowl with the item, then put everything onto the baking tray, swirled it all around (carefully) with our hands and baked it.  We measured 10 minutes by the clock for more time telling practice. The final game was the first time I had designed my own strategy game for her.  It was meant to help her think about even and odd numbers.  Her favorite part of course was making the “wheee-oo wheee-oo!” sounds every time the “ambulance” came to help the wounded soldiers.  She concentrated very hard and seemed to enjoy it

World on the Weekend: Poland

Child expressed a desire to learn about Poland when I told her my paternal great-grandmother had left there to emigrate to England at the age of 10.  Before she died, she wrote the story of that journey in Yiddish, which my great aunt and my father translated and wrote up in English.  She was the second eldest of 5 children.  Her father was already in England and he visited once every year or so “and left us a little present 9 months later each time”.  Eventually the mother and children made their way by train from the village of Tomaschow all the way across Europe to their new home. 

The main reason the family migrated? Antisemitism.  This was in 1910.  In the Second World War, Poland would lose approximately 90% of its Jewish population.  How does one even begin to explain this to a child? 

I myself grew up in a Jewish community in the ‘80s and, as my mother worked in a senior citizens’ day center, I spent a great deal of my time listening to their stories.  Most of these people were survivors of the Holocaust, of course, which meant I got to hear fascinating stories of kindness, courage and heroism.  At the Jewish primary school I attended, the focus was also on the resistance, including the partisan fighters in the forests of Poland.  This approach, this focus on the small victories rather than on the great evils fostered in me a sense of pride in my own people and faith in the basic goodness of those who risked their lives to help, which is what I wanted to pass on to my own child.  There is a book about the partisan fighters for children called “I Survived the Holocaust”, but before reading it, I decided to do a few activities of my own with Child to prepare her.


History, math

This is a simple abstract co-operative game using the snake-shaped board we painted for math games.  On different squares, place symbols representing Nazis (the swastika), Jews (the Star of David), the Red Cross, food (you can write the word) and forest (just use the green squares or draw a tree).  You will also need to write the numbers 0-9 on cards and place them in a hat or bag.

The game: Draw two numbers from the bag and decide which two-digit number you want to have.  For example, if you draw a 2 and an 8, you can either go to square number 28 on the snake or 82.  Because the snake squares have no numbers, you will have to calculate which square it is, and this is made easier if you count by 5s or 10s.

Take the card from the square you land on. If you take a Star of David card, you have “rescued” a Jewish person.  The object of the game is to rescue as many Jews as possible before the game ends.  If you get 3 Swastikas, you are “captured” by the Nazis and the game is over.  “Food”, “Red Cross”, and “forest” cards are all helpful as you can use them to help the people you save.

There is, of course far more to Poland than Nazis, and I chose to focus on three of Poland’s great luminaries: Copernicus, Marie Curie and Chopin.

Science, math

The story of Copernicus gives you a chance to review and add to your child’s understanding of the solar system.  One way to do this is to measure the relative distance between the planets so that 100 steps is the distance from the sun to the Kuiper belt at the edge of our solar system (  

You can also watch this and other fascinating videos showing the relative sizes of the planets: ( . You can also find apps which allows you to “see” the solar system from the perspective of different planets: from Neptune, the sun looks barely larger than a star. 

Here is a rather catchy song about the planets that your younger child might like: ( .

Marie Curie was the only woman to win two different Nobel prizes in chemistry and physics.  She is most famous for discovering radiation and tragically died of its effects.  You can find an excellent biography on Animated Hero Classics ( 

You can easily print or make a set of cards of the elements of the periodic table, then place them randomly on the math snake board (see above).  Each player draws two numbers from 0-9 from a bag and chooses how to read them (ex 2 and 8 can be 28 or 82).   Find the square on the board and take the element card. Whoever lands on a radioactive element loses, at which point feel free to play Chopin’s funeral march!


Have bagels for lunch.  They were an invention of Polish Jews who then brought them over to the new world and led to a long-standing disagreement over whether the doughier New York-style or the lighter Montreal-style bagels are better.  (Sheer numbers seem to favor the former, but good taste suggests the latter is the true winner.)


I wrote a short “choose your own adventure” type of story about a young woman named Hannah (for Hannah Senesh, a famous partisan fighter).  Depending on the readers choices, the character ended up either working on a kibbutz in Palestine, fighting in the Warsaw ghetto uprising or rescuing Jews in the forests of Poland.

There is also a children’s book about the partisan fighters called “I Survived the Holocaust” by Lauran Tarshis (indeed there is a whole series of “I survived” books), but before reading it, I decided to do these activities with Child to prepare her. After we had played the Holocaust game and read the story I wrote, Child looked through the pictures of the book, then closed it and declared she wanted to wait until she was older to learn more.  I gathered that she understood the true horrors enough to know that she wasn’t ready to hear more and I respected her decision.  I noticed, however, that she took the game very seriously indeed.  At one point, Father walked into the room to tell us something, but she wouldn’t allow him to interrupt “otherwise we won’t be able to save enough Jewish people before the Nazis get us”. 

Marie Curie was the latest in our series of studies on famous women and particularly female scientists.  It is interesting that Child finds it strange when I focus on the fact that these women achieved such greatness: she has yet to grasp quite how oppressed women have been throughout history and why each achievement required such courage against nearly insurmountable odds.  While it pleases me that humanity has advanced so far that many young women today feel they can afford to disregard the efforts of the feminist movement, it is definitely too soon to remove it entirely from the curriculum; we still have a great deal to continue fighting for.

The solar system walk was a pleasant way to spend time outside and explore the local terrain from a new perspective.  However, Child had an interesting reaction: if she knows about the solar system, and she knows that we revolve around the sun, why was it so hard for the Church to see that Copernicus was right?

The only bagels available in Ecuador are, unfortunately, of the New York variety.  We did our best to enjoy them anyway.

Worlod on the Weekend: Spain

Spain, being close to France, shares much of its historical context vis a vis the Roman Empire and the early barbarian tribes.  It is also geographically close to North Africa and has felt the influence of the Islamic empires expanding northward. Spanish retaliation against these invaders has made it one of the major Catholic strongholds in Europe.  The Romani people, (known rather pejoratively as “Gypsies”) have historically been a minority, as have the Basque people, but they’ve left quite a large mark on the culture in terms of music, dance, language and the arts.

The Spanish Renaissance and early modern period were not good periods if you were not Catholic.  Abroad, indigenous populations were being decimated by conquest and disease and those who survived were forcibly converted and enslaved.  At home, the inquisition killed off the Jews and anyone else Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand disapproved of.

Yet, as in so many cultures, it was the artists who truly described what Spanish culture meant to be.  “Don Quixote de la Mancha”, written by Renaissance man Miguel de Cervantes was one of the first books written in the style of the modern novel and describes a man who, for all his foolishness and naïveté, really does believe in the ideals of Christian knighthood.  Indeed, Cristobal Colon (whom we know as Christopher Columbus) who was the harbinger of such devastation in the Americas, nonetheless represents in our collective historical imagination the ideal of the fearless explorer.  Flamenco in its many forms as music, song, dance and rhythms of hands and feet is another example of how even the most oppressed populations in Spain added to an art form that traces its roots from among the Jews, Romani, North African and Andalusian peoples.  Flamenco dance also presents a vision of women as beautifully powerful, forceful and strong, a far cry from the reality of the traditionally male-dominated society in which it flourished.


Language arts

There is a lovely animated film of Don Quixote which you can find here (  The title character is as sweet and noble as can be, but it is interesting to discuss the plight of his servant Sancho Panza as he is forced to endure a long and difficult journey on his master’s whim.  The horse Rozinante, as well, is portrayed as a patient, long-suffering beast, slightly lazy but far more in touch with reality than her owner.

We also watched the movie of Ferdinand, recently re-released, which is the story of a bull who does not want to fight in the arena.  This story has almost as many interpretations as readers: does Ferdinand represent cowardice or bravery? Patriotism? Communism? Fascism? Anarchism? LGBTQ?  Watch the movie or read the charming book and decide for yourself.


Flamenco a magnificent dance style to watch and to even attempt yourself.  You can find many different types of flamenco music.  The group The Gypsy Kings is Spanish but of Romani heritage and their music reflects the rhythms of their people; you might the song of “El Toro Enamorado De La Luna” (The Bull In Love With The Moon). 

Ballet is not traditionally Spanish, but many wonderful ballets have been choreographed to tell Spanish stories such as “Don Quixote” and “Carmen”.

Art and math

Twentieth century Spanish art offers a lot of interesting styles and possibilities for a child to explore.  We chose to explore Dali and Picasso.

You can begin by studying Dali’s famous painting “The Persistence of Memory” with the clocks that appear to melt.  Then, make a simple bread dough. Roll out some of the dough in a circle and fashion numbers out of what’s left.  Place the numbers in the correct positions on the “clock”, which also helps practice concepts of diameters and right angles and equidistance.  Then practice counting by fives to tell the time. Finally, drape your dough clock over objects on the counter in the style of the painting.

Look at Picasso’s paintings of faces and you’ll notice that they don’t really look like ours.   Use more dough to make faces looking directly at you (two eyes, a nose and mouth in middle) and faces in profile (one eye, half a mouth and the nose on the side).

Then, of course, go ahead and bake the art and have a lovely snack.


Another one of my largely symbolic and somewhat simplified games involves the history of colonization.  As we are living in Ecuador, this is not a topic we can easily sidestep.  The objectives of this game are to familiarize your child with the names of three highly influential explorers/conquerors: Columbus in Hispaniola, Cortes in the Aztec empire in modern-day Mexico, and Pizarro in the Inca empire; as well as to highlight the one-way nature of the relationship.  We began by showing the relevant locations on the world map.  Then I placed four cups on the ground: one at one end of the path representing Spain, and three at the other representing Mexico, Hispaniola and Peru.  Each cup had ten pennies in it to begin with.  Each player labels themselves as one of the three explorers. 

The game is: Run, take a penny out of your colony’s cup, run back and drop it into the Spanish cup and continue until you have taken all of the money.

Then spend some time discussing the reality of Spanish exploitation: that the indigenous people worked very hard to make the Spanish King and Queen wealthy, but that they didn’t take very much gold directly as in the game; rather the Spanish began to come in increasingly large numbers and most of the local people died of viral disease and overwork. Today, most people in Latin America are what they term mestizo, or mixed race, being of both Spanish and Indigenous descent.


It is always hard to tell what a child takes away from activities such as these, particularly the final one described above.  From her comments and questions, it seemed that what most interested her was how the indigenous people became ill.  We had previously discussed how viruses spread and how the immune system works to fight diseases such as the flu.  It seemed to puzzle her, and to some extent to frighten her, that the immune systems of the indigenous people failed to protect them. This led to videos, books and explain actions of how vaccines work: they “teach” our body about new diseases so our white blood cells can fight it. 

The actual concept of colonization didn’t seem to impress her as much as I had thought it would. It is possible she didn’t understand it clearly enough.  On the other hand, it is also possible she did understand it very well and simply wasn’t interested in pursuing the topic, either because it was too disturbing or because she felt she understood enough.  Either way, I felt it was important to follow her lead in this matter and not push the issue. Other children may react differently.

She responded very well to the other activities, perhaps because they were lighter and more playful.  As it happens, Child is currently enrolled in flamenco dance lessons which she enjoys immensely, and she was happy to show me the steps she had learned, complete with long skirt, high heeled shoes and flower in her hair.

World on the Weekend: France


It’s easy enough to have fun with France if you’ve a mind to: the food, the wine, the culture, the literature, the fashion, the architecture…one really is spoiled for choice. 

The early history wasn’t much to brag about: the Gauls, the Francs, the Celts, the Visigoths, the Ostragoths, the Vandals and other tribes living in or around modern-day France were what the Romans called collectively and pejoratively “barbarians”, and they were right.  They had a warrior culture from their hunter-gatherer era that wasn’t much civilized by settling down and farming.  Between 390 BC and 52 BC, the Gauls and the Romans took turns conquering each other until Julius Cesar eventually won control over all of Gaul.  The Gauls and the Romans mixed not only their bloodlines, but their languages and pre-Christian religions as well, and they all eventually converted to Christianity together.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the people whom the Romans had called “uncivilized” ended up bringing a fair amount of civilisation north in 1066 with the Norman invasion of England.  This was a huge turning point for English speakers linguistically as our Germanic language was essentially slowly and permanently wed to the Latin-based French.  Chaucer was one of the greatest writers in the Middle English period, but it is difficult to read his work in the original without a solid grasp of French vocabulary and pronunciation.  Traces of this wedding can be seen today in that our Latin words tend to be reserved for more highbrow use.  For example, “teacher” is of Germanic origin, while the more exalted (and slightly better paid) “professor” is clearly a French word.  Food “on the hoof”, that is, the live animal, frequently has more prosaic Germanic names such as cow, sheep and swine, which somehow get to the table to become beef (boeuf), mutton (mouton) and pork (porc); the reason for this is that the lower-class English who raised the animals were frequently servants of the upper-class French who ate the meals.

The French, after their bloody revolution in 1789, which happened not long after the American war of independence, changed the world with their recognition of the rights of man (to which the English writer Mary Wollstonecraft responded, rather shockingly for the times, with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”), and paved the way for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which we have today. 

Yet, for all the horrors of the period, Queen Marie Antoinette nonetheless fired the imagination of couturiers and architects for generations with the stunning costumes she wore at the magnificent chateau Versailles; classist though she was, French art and culture wouldn’t have been the same without her.

The twentieth century brought two of the bloodiest wars in history and France had the misfortune to be geographically and politically right in the thick of the action.  This period isn’t one we generally teach children at a very young age because of the extreme brutality and violence of the wars.  However, the concept of patriotism, especially as it manifested then, can be summed up in the glorious scene in Casablanca when the Nazis in Rick’s bar in Morocco begin to sing loud and deliberately offensive songs in German; Rick orders the band to strike up the Marseillaise and the characters engage in a symbolic battle of song, won eventually by the frightened French protagonists (


Language arts and reading

French tales such as “Notre Dame de Paris”, better known as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” are all great favorites in most homes, largely due to the influence of Walt Disney movies. You might also enjoy the film “Ever After”, which is a rather feminist retelling of Cendrillon (Cinderella) starring Drew Barrymore with Anjelica Houston as the delightfully nasty stepmother. 

There is a Thea Sisters book called “Mystery in Paris” which offers a delightful tour of the modern-day city of lights as the characters chase down the thief of the fashion designer’s latest collection.

The French language is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce, but it’s always fun to learn a few words.  Indeed, much of ballet, cooking, architecture, theatre, music and other artistic terminology is French.  Look up terms like pirouette, bain-marie, art nouveau, foyer, and overture. 


This is a simple card game which can be played with an ordinary deck.  The math objective is to practice adding multiple numbers; the historical aim is to experience how it felt to be a serf or a peasant subject to unfair taxes according to Royal whim.  The game is co-operative and all of the players imagine they are a peasant family.  The aim is to see how much “money” you have left at the end of the game.  The deck is shuffled and placed face down in the middle.  Take turns drawing cards.  If you draw a number card, add the number to your running total income.  If, however, you draw a face card, you lose everything you have accumulated up until that point in the form of “taxes” to the royals.  If you draw more than one face card in a row, you can dramatically act out how sorry you are that you are but a poor peasant with nothing to offer his/her royal highness.  If you wish, you can have the King, Queen or Jack arbitrarily decide whether to put you in jail (hide under the table for the next round) by flipping a coin. 


Download coloring pages of French fashion.  Don’t limit the activity to mere coloring, however.  Feel free to glue on beads, sequins, ribbons, whatever strikes your fancy.  For example, decorate a t-shirt by sewing on beads and ribbons.  More experienced seamstresses and tailors might enjoy helping their child make doll’s clothes.


It is possible to purchase two-and three-dimensional puzzles of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Paris Opera, chateau Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and other iconic buildings.  There are ways to make DIY stained glass which you can find online, but for younger children, window markers will be just as much fun, as will colored cellophane cut out into interesting geometric shapes and taped onto the window.


The French art of the “chanson” as epitomized by Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Leo Ferré and others is a delightful musical genre to waltz around the room to and can even turn into quite the workout if you follow the rhythms properly. 


Food is a delicious and important part of any culture.  Consider this lesson a delightful excuse to indulge in baguettes and a variety of French cheeses.  French parents allow their children to drink wine and coffee: you can allow your child to taste them if you wish. 

It is not necessary to sample all of the cuisine of a country, especially on a budget.  It is also impractical if you have a picky eater, as there is no point wasting food.  Instead, pick one or two small snacks that you, at least will enjoy.  Children should be encouraged to taste but not forced to finish new foods, therefore, tiny portions are in order.


The movie Ever After brought up some interesting discussions. The first was that the plot of the movie didn’t follow the version we were accustomed to, for example, that Cinderella’s name was actually Danielle.  In the film, the sisters were Marguerite and Jacqueline, while in our book, they were Drusilla and Anastasia.  For a child, details like these can be a sticking point.  There were many other disputing points, which I had to explain were a result of the fact that fairy tales are generally oral traditions with many versions, unlike written books which usually have only one “official” version.  This discussion has come up in other situations where, for instance, we have compared films to books and even to ballets, and the details were often different though the plot was overall recognizable. 

Another issue that came up was the veracity of the tale.  “Ever After” uses a plot device similar to “Titanic” in which the story is framed by an elderly woman appearing at the beginning and at the end who wants to set the record straight on what “really” happened.  In this movie, the final line is that, though the prince and Cinderella lived happily ever after, “The point, gentlemen,” the old woman insists, “is that they lived”.  In an era of easily published and rapidly disseminated information, it is essential to teach children to distinguish the true from the false, the fictional from the fact.  This is not easy to teach anyone these days, let alone a child.  One problem I discovered, for example, was that Child assumed that cartoons were all fictional while anything with real people was necessarily fact.  Finding the same actor in two different movies was a surprise to her.  Another problem came up when we read books of historical and scientific fiction.  In the “Magic Tree House” series by Mary Pope Osborne, for example, Jack and Annie are fictional characters, but George Washington, whom they met in one of the books, did exist, though what he actually said to them was imagined by the author.  The “Magic School Bus” series employs the same technique with science: bees do live in hives, but a school bus cannot shrink to fit inside.  As adults, perhaps we assume that these things are obvious, but they are not and they are definitely worth discussing.  To return to the movie, Danielle de Barbarac, whom her stepsister nastily nicknamed Cinderella, was not real, yet Leonardo DaVinci was, though obviously his participation in the plot is fictional.  The painting of Cinderella shown in the movie is a real painting from 1508 called Head of a Woman, but of course Leonardo DaVinci was unlikely to have painted it with either Cinderella or Drew Barrymore in mind.

The card game was one I designed myself.  I have found that many difficult concepts can be represented for children in a manner that is abstract enough that it gets at once to the essence of the question.  In this case, the idea of an unjust taxation system is fairly simple to translate: the luck (or misfortune) of the draw determines how much money you will be left with.  In this book, you will find many other such games dealing with issues including slavery, the holocaust and colonization. 

World on the Weekend: Ireland

It can be dangerous to distinguish between religion and mythology, for one people’s truth may be another’s fantasy.  Generally, mythologies are dead religions, which is why wars are fought to defend beliefs that are currently held current rather than those no longer worshipped.  For the Irish, Celtic mythology is an important part of their modern culture insofar as it speaks to the national identity, and most will talk of having kissed the Blarney Stone or of finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and indeed much of modern culture, including the famed Harry Potter franchise, would not exist without these legends; however, only a minority currently practise the rituals with any degree of seriousness.  It is interesting to note that the earliest Celtic gods and goddesses were indomitable warriors blessed with the souls of poets.  It wasn’t until after the advent of Christianity which saw many of the gods turned into saints, that stories of the “little people”, what we know as leprechauns and other sprites, began to emerge. 

As with the Greeks and the English, however, sometimes the stories people choose to invent and tell about themselves, their values and their origins give us a greater insight into who they are as a people than their real historical events, which, in the case of Ireland, have often been tragic and bloody.  The potato famine, for example, is still something of a sore point: the Irish did not choose to live exclusively on potatoes, it was forced upon them by their English oppressors.  When the blight came, thousands died and thousands more were forced to flee, which is why there are so many people of Irish descent in the United States and Canada today.  Yet this modern view of Irish victimhood is at odds with their Celtic heritage of brave warriors who alone withstood the invasion of the Roman Empire. 

In 1996, while at a hostel somewhere in Malaysia, I got to chatting with a very nice girl about my own age.  She told me she was from Ireland and I told her I was from Quebec.  It amused me to note that we both looked equally shocked: “What’s it like there? Can you explain what’s going on?” we both asked breathlessly.  I was referring, of course, to the “Troubles” in Ireland which had led to more than 3,500 deaths between 1969 and 2001.  (In Quebec, the previous year, we had had heated but comparatively civil debates over whether to leave Canada. The vote to remain won with 50.58% of the votes and left bruised egos and hurt feelings, but no direct casualties.)   In the last century, the “troubles” between the Catholic and Protestant sections of the country have now morphed from a series of wars between terrorists to political battles fought more in the Houses of Parliament than on the streets.  However, since the Belfast Agreement was brokered in 1998, there continues to be politically motivated deadly violence in what is called, without irony, the post-conflict period in Northern Ireland.



Irish music veers from otherworldly and ethereal in sound (think Enya and Loreena McKinnit) to such lively fiddles you can barely keep your feet still.  Riverdance, in recent years, has become the world-renowned epitome of this type of Irish dance.  I found tutorials, but I must confess that even the most basic steps had me flummoxed.  Devise your own steps to the music involving combinations of hopping, skipping and jumping:  it will turn out to be quite a workout for everyone. 

Your child might also enjoy watching Sesame Street: Irish dancing school with Murray the muppet. 

Language arts

You can find books and online videos and texts of Irish legends and stories and your child will likely be particularly enamoured, as are many people, with the idea of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

You can make a simple rainbow treasure hunt by writing clues to lead the child to something of each color of the rainbow.  For example, the first clue could be “It eats like a vegetable but grows like a fruit, sauce it and pizza or pasta it will suit” and hide the next clue next to the tomatoes.

Limericks are a humorous form of poetry, and there are many (clean) limericks to be found online for children.  A good game is to see if the child can guess the last word of the poem based on the rhyming pattern of AABBA.

Art and STEM

Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle for its green beauty, so play with the color green.  Try mixing blue, yellow, black and white paints to make as many different shades of green as possible.

You can also paint a large rainbow and review the primary and secondary colors. 

Try this napkin experiment: three glasses of water, one colored red, one yellow and one blue are placed on a table with paper towels between each pair of glasses so that one end is dipped into one color and the other end in a different one.  The colors will creep up the towel and eventually mix to form the secondary colors (purple, green and orange).


Find a map of Ireland online.  A tourist map works well if it shows places of interest.  Print it and trace a line through each of the locations.  Then take turns rolling dice, moving the correct number of dots to the appropriate place and looking it up online.

You can also make lots of games with colored paper.  Find red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and purple paper (include more colors if you like) and cut it into shapes and try the following challenges:

  • Sequence the shapes by color and number of sides
  • Color a pattern on paper and then make the same pattern with the shapes
  • Lay down a shape and take turns finding another of either the same shape or the same color until you have a nice long snake.  You can also play by the same rules as Crazy 8s where you each start with 8 pieces and the winner is the first to empty their hand.
  • Write cards with the names of the shapes (triangle, hexagon etc) and other cards with the name of the colours (red, orange).  Lay all the colored shapes on the table and put pennies under some of them.  Take a shape card and a colour card and find the right piece: did you get a penny?


In Irish pubs in Montreal, Chicago, New York and other places, you can get green beer on St Patrick’s Day.  Assuming your kids don’t drink beer, try this taste test: first with your eyes open, then, blindfolded, see if orange juice colored green with food coloring tastes the same as orange juice in its original color. 

You might enjoy a hearty bowl of porridge (oatmeal) for breakfast with a drizzle of honey or condensed milk.


Dancing was fun, though tiring.  We enjoyed music not only from Riverdance, but also the Irish punk band, the Dropkick Murphys, Irish pub music and Celtic and Gaelic chants we found on YouTube.  Child liked the fast rhythms best.

The treasure hunt was surprisingly fun for a child who generally refuses to read and even claims she can’t.  She had no trouble reading these clues at all, especially since she knew there was to be a “treasure” at the end. 

Child very much enjoyed the stories, particularly those involving mischievous leprechauns.

The limericks amused me, but it was unclear if Child found them funny.  She didn’t laugh, but perhaps because she was concentrating too hard on trying to find the missing word.  The trouble seemed to be she couldn’t identify the rhythm of the poem, so she didn’t know when to jump in with the last word, so we picked one and physically skipped through it a few times, then beat it with our hands.  She loves dancing, but rhythm has always been something she needed to work on.

The art projects were definitely here favorite part, especially painting the rainbow.  She thought the paper towel experiment fascinating.  She also enjoys mixing paints even if she doesn’t actually paint with them, so that was fun, if somewhat messy.

The board game did achieve the aim of basic math practice: rolling two or three dice and adding our way forward, but the website we used  wasn’t as helpful as I thought because it was primarily tourist information laid on a bit too thickly.  That’s why I haven’t included it here.

The orange juice was delicious in either color and Child really enjoyed the porridge, especially after I explained it had been my favorite food when I was pregnant with her. 

The history of the potato famine did come up, which, perhaps unfortunately led Child to suggest a meal of different kinds of potatoes (fried, baked, boiled etc).  There were too many potatoes, but we shared them with visiting friends that evening.  We did enjoy cooking them all the different ways though. We compared the taste of “ordinary” russet potatoes with Andean species of sweet potato in all the different forms which added an interesting perspective to the project.

World on the Weekend: India

For our family, Indian culture seems quite exotic.  There are relatively few south Asian people in Quito, though there is one excellent curry restaurant in the Mariscal neighborhood.  Since the documented history is well over 4000 years old, however, it’s definitely worth a look.  Geographically, India was not always limited to the borders drawn on current maps, which date back to British decolonization in 1947 when mostly Hindu India separated from mostly Islamic Pakistan.  Indeed, the story of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation, a contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, was large enough that it also encompassed most of present-day Afghanistan as well.  And civilized it was: while not much is known because we can’t yet decipher their writing, it would seem from archeological evidence that they had well-organized cities carefully planned and laid out in grids, they produced enough food to support a class of artisans who wove textiles and played games with boards and dice, and, most surprisingly, had excellent sanitation with nearly every home having a bath and a type of flush toilet leading to a sewer system. What is even more amazing is what this society did NOT have: there seems to be no evidence of weaponry beyond basic hunting tools.  There are no structures that would appear to have been used as temples or palaces for any kind of royalty.  Yet, from the layout of the cities, there must have been some sort of over-arching government to plan and collect taxes.  Susan Wise Bauer explains in her Story of the World series that there are basically three ways to know history: oral histories from people who are alive today, written records, or archeological evidence.  Conversations about the type of evidence needed to come to these conclusions about the Indus Valley civilisation can be quite interesting.

Hinduism, one of the main religions of India today, is an ancient and complex religion.  There is no need to teach it in great detail to a child who is not of the faith unless there is an interest.  However, the pantheon of gods with their varied anatomies and interconnected back stories tells us as much about the Hindu cosmology as about the people who follow it.  From a child’s point of view, creatures of mixed species, such as Ganesh, with the head of an elephant and the body of a man with 4 arms, are always fascinating.

Yoga is Buddhist in origin, another one of the major religions in India.  It is both a form of physical exercise and mental meditation because it involves concentrating on holding often difficult poses for short periods of time.  Yoga has been shown to increase mindfulness and improve concentration in children.

For a more modern take on India, Bollywood is a phenomenon that is even bigger in its own right than Hollywood, and both the films and the unique style of music and dance that they often feature are hugely popular in South Asia and beyond. 

Since 1947, India and Pakistan have been in constant conflict and both have nuclear power.  As I write this, India and Pakistan continue to experience and perpetrate violence against each other, with a particular crisis in the majority-Islam autonomous region of Kashmir controlled in parts by both Pakistan and India. India has recently revoked Kashmir’s “special status” as an autonomous region and the area is now on lockdown with a heavy Indian military presence and a local communications blackout.  It is up to your family to decide whether to follow the developments on this story together, and if and how to discuss the ongoing violence with your children. 


Fashion and math

Learn how to drape a sari (we used a scarf which, on Child, was about the right dimensions for a sari) and how to make mendhi (traditional henna tattoo) designs on your hands and feet with turmeric paste. 

Dance and movement

You can find Bollywood dance tutorial videos for kids on YouTube and spend a fun half hour learning a new dance.

Then relax with some yoga poses.  If you want, try this activity: say the name of a pose and allow your child to imagine the pose before showing her the correct one.  For example, if you didn’t know what a “downward facing dog” position was, how would you imagine it?  Conversely, if I stand straight on one foot with my other drawn up to my inner thigh and my hands clasped together, what would you name that pose?


For math, have a look at images of some of the different gods and other creatures in the Hindu pantheon.   You’ll notice that even the ones with non-human shaped bodies nonetheless have symmetrical limbs. None (at least to my knowledge) have, for instance, three left arms and one right arm, and if they have a “third eye”, it is always centered in the middle of the forehead rather than to one side. Using scissors and paper, cut out some torsos, heads, arms and legs of humans and other animals and imagine your own creatures.  The only rule: all of the creatures have to have bodily symmetry.  This means understanding even and odd numbers because it is not possible to have a symmetrical body with five legs


Played the following logic game:  Describe something that might turn up in an archeological dig and then imagine the story behind it.  For example:

  • A brick with a small paw print and a piece of broken pottery next to it (perhaps a cat jumped on the brick before it was dry and knocked down the pot)
  • A big board with symbols on it found next to a road paved with bricks (might have been a street sign)
  • Bricks placed to form a wall with some that are crushed (perhaps an invader broke down parts of the wall)
  • A tiny wheelbarrow, perhaps only a few inches tall, and too small to use for carrying big things, buried outside of a structure that appears to be a house (maybe a child was called in to dinner and left his toy outside and it was covered by mud when it rained that night). 

Then, challenge your child to leave clues in different rooms that might suggest what she has been doing.  For example, he might leave a wet washcloth on the side of the tub so you might guess she had showered.  Or, she might leave her doll on the bed surrounded by its diapers and milk bottles for you to guess that she had been looking after it. 


Make curry and allow your child to help cut up the vegetables.


I don’t know how to drape a sari, nor how to make a turmeric paste of the proper consistency for mendhi tattoo designs.  However, we watched tutorials and looked at images to get ideas and we tried to copy what we saw.  I do not pretend to know everything, and I believe it is beneficial for Child to see how I go about looking up that which I do not know.  The same happened when we followed the Bollywood dance tutorial: though I love dance as a hobby and Child has spent many years watching and imitating me as I stretch, twirl and prance about the living room, this was a form of dance that was new to me and she enjoyed watching me learn as much as she herself enjoyed learning it.  We watched the Bollywood dance videos and Child was enchanted by the beauty of the female performers with their jewelry, costumes and make up.  Sadly, she noted her wish to have long, straight, black hair as Indian women do, and as most girls in Ecuador do.  As it happens, she takes after me with her short bouncy curls.  In the lesson on Switzerland, described later, we watched the 1947 movie of Heidi starring Shirley Temple which eventually made her feel better about her own hair.

The game of name-that-yoga-pose didn’t work the way I had anticipated: Child likes cats and every movement reminded her of cats.  She ended up choosing names such as “cat hunting a mouse” or even “cat pretending to be a tree”. 

The symmetry challenge also failed to match my expectations.  Child seemed to see my requirement that the gods have symmetrical limbs as an unreasonable limit to her artistic freedom.  “But I want to do it the way I want,” she protested as she carefully placed two arms on one side and none on the other.  It finally transpired that her figures were dancing, which she managed to explain by pointing to a picture of a Shiva statue in a book who was standing on one leg with the other raised across her body and slightly bent in a pose that ballerinas call attitude.  She then showed what she was attempting to have her paper doll do by demonstrating with her own body.

The history game was difficult at first.  Deducing from evidence is not easy for children, and perhaps not for adults either.  We have read Sherlock Holmes stories as well as mysteries featuring The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Thea Sisters and others, but though she recognizes an unsolved dilemma when she hears it, and though she marvels at the resolution, she rarely attempts guesses of her own.  This activity was challenging for her and she required more than superficial help.  In the end, the activity of leaving clues for me didn’t work as she was unable to do it herself, so we discussed each clue and then challenged her father to solve the mysteries.  He made some deliberately incorrect guesses (“Were you cooking the doll?”) which amused and delighted her and sent her into fits of giggles, so the game was a success from that point of view.

The curry was a disaster.  However, Child had valuable practice cutting vegetables with a proper sharp knife.  We also discussed why cooking rice at high altitude was trickier than cooking it at sea level which led to a discussion of how water boils at a different temperature as well.

World on the Weekend: Ecuador and the Inca Empire

The Inca empire only lasted approximately 80 years, but they left their mark on the Andes in the form of the terraces and monuments at the famous Macchu Picchu site.  There are also intriguing stories involving the Inca leader, Atahualpa, hiding gold from Spanish conquistador Pizarro, which, according to legend, still exists though none have found it.  Tragically, the Inca people who did not succumb to influenza and other foreign diseases brought by the Spanish, were either slaughtered or enslaved by the European invaders.  As a result, we have been left with tantalizing relics of a truly remarkable civilisation that we can only guess at.  Quipus are an excellent example: they consist of ropes of intricately knotted cords that we know were some form of communication, but whether the knots represented only numbers or words as well is still a subject of heated debate.  There is no-one alive today who can read a quipu.  As for the terraces, they were an agricultural marvel in that they used the steep slopes of the Andean mountains as a way to grow different crops at different altitudes and irrigate them all with a minimum of waste.  The government would have been centralized around a single monarch, this much we know from the historical battles that took place between successive generations of brothers. The empire itself at its height extended from the south of present day Colombia down as far as Chile though Macchu Picchu was its capital.  There would have been extensive trade between the different regions though food distribution was centralized so that the peasants would have received food through a system of hierarchical government and taxation. 

Note: This lesson came about after our lessons about the ancient civilisations in Greece, Egypt and Rome, when Child requested something closer to our home in Ecuador. 



Make a giant map of Ecuador or South America on butcher block paper.  You can make a simple glue out of flour, cornstarch and water which can be applied with a paintbrush.  This allows you to glue broccoli florets on the map to show the Amazon rainforest.  The Andean mountain range can a series of vertical paper triangles, the highest of which can painted white at the tip to represent snow.  The coast can be covered with green and gold glitter to show the mangroves and beaches.  Feel free to glue on pictures of local animals in the different regions such as

  • Giant tortoises and blue footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands. 
  • Monkeys, parrots, toucans, piranha and anaconda in the rainforest
  • Spectacled bears in the Andes


Listen to traditional Andean music:  the Ecuadorian highland group Jayac, and the Bolivian band Los Kharkas are very good.


You can make quipus by attaching several strings to a stick at the top.  Then you can use them to count (European-style) in several ways:

  • You can have the first string represent thousands, the next hundreds, the next tens and the last ones, so if you make 4 knots on the first string, three on the second, 6 on the third and 1 on the last, the number will read 4361.
  • You can tie the same number of knots on each string (ex: 5), and multiply the knots by the number of strings (ex: 4) and have the whole quipu represent the total (in this case 20).
  • You can have the last two strings on the right represent the amount in cents and the rest of the strings to the left represent dollars and write out prices.
  • You can also invent a secret code where the number of knots on a string corresponds to a letter of the English alphabet and “write” out words.  Even better, look up basic words in Quechua to write.

STEM, food

One of the nicest things the Incas cultivated was cacao used in, you guessed it, the making of chocolate. You can build a terrace in the style of the Incas in the nicest way possible: make layers of cookie or sweet bread dough and place them on top of each other in the style of a terrace.  Before you bake the dough, be sure to make little “irrigation channels” running from the top of the terrace to the bottom.  After taking it out of the over, let it cool and run chocolate sauce over it.  Use the chocolate pool at the bottom as a dip for Andean fruit such as bananas, strawberries and pineapples  


In researching the Incas, I was fortunate to have access to a brilliant pool of history professors at Universidad de Los Hemisferios, to whom I owe my gratitude and probably another round of coffee. In many schools in Ecuador, saberes ancestrales or ancestral knowledge, is a required school subject, as well it should be.  Because of her father’s work as a tour guide, Child has been fortunate enough to meet Indigenous people in Ecuador and visit their communities, mainly those of the Kichwa, and the Siona – Secoya Amazon tribes in Tena and Succumbios provinces respectively.  She has seen how they still have huts with plaited grass roofs for ceremonies and how, though they usually wear jeans and t-shirts, they still wear ceremonial clothes with woven bird feathers and paint their faces with the red seeds from the achiote fruit.  She learned how they make chocolate by toasting and grinding the seeds of the cacao plant and how they make bread and a type of fermented drink from yucca roots.  Not all children have this opportunity, of course, but similar benefits can be had from both watching videos and documentaries, such as Global Grover, and simply by talking to the elderly in your own family or community.  My mother worked in a senior citizen’s day centre in the heart of the Jewish community, and I spent many hours after school visiting with the people there.  Many of them told me of their experiences surviving the Holocaust, and I certainly listened to them more attentively than I did to my teachers at school and probably learned a lot more.

Learning ancestral knowledge from our grandparents is a valuable education though the elderly are seldom used as a resource in today’s school curricula.  This is a situation best remedied within the family, if not with one’s  own relatives, then by visiting knowledgeable elders wherever they are found, whether in universities, parks or hospices.